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Online to On-Campus: The Symbiotic Growth of the Alt-Right Pipeline

The rise of social media has revolutionized American politics. While some of those implications—increased activism, youth engagement, and misinformation—are well-documented, many of equal importance are often overlooked. In particular, while most are likely familiar with the radicalizing effect of social media (everyone has that Facebook-obsessed uncle), few grasp just how powerfully the magnets of indoctrination can pull.

The “Alt-Right Pipeline” refers to a web of content creators who range from conventional conservatives to full-blown white supremacists. Though not explicitly connected, their semi-frequent collaborations and predatory social media algorithms combine to funnel young, unsuspecting, and largely male audiences into a maelstrom of far-right propaganda. The theory helps explain a distinctly 21st-century phenomenon: the inexplicable radicalization of friends and families on the internet.

Social media algorithms enable the global dissemination of alt-right rhetoric. Partisan content tends to attract more user engagement in the form of likes, comments, and shares. Consequently, social media companies are incentivized to thrust politically polarizing content onto people’s feeds. If the user engages with this content, the process of radicalization becomes self–reinforcing. Users are thrust into an echo chamber of beliefs that form and affirm a particular worldview—one that gets more extreme the more the user engages with the platform. In the 21st century, many who fall victim to radicalization are not actively choosing to take each increasingly extreme steps, but they consume content on platforms that exclude critical thought behind the walls of ideological homogeneity.

How could the average young social media user become enthralled with proto-fascist ideologies? After all, Gen-Z is by far the most progressive generation. Why do they take that first step? To answer this question, it’s important to examine how conservative figureheads exploit social media.

Ideological extremists, and white nationalists in particular, have a long history as “innovation opportunists.” Historically, the KKK was one of the first groups to use film, radio, and the internet to disseminate their message when each of those technologies was in its infancy. Social media is no different. This is because the ultimate goal of alt-right radicals is not just attracting followers, but shifting the “Overton Window”—the realm of acceptable discourse in society—to the right. In other words, they use subliminal messaging and covert dog whistles to make extremist content seem less extreme than it actually is. One need look no further than today’s “memes” to see the pattern continue. For example, Pepe the Frog, a popular image of a cartoon frog with no inherent political message, was appropriated by far-right content creators to push radicalizing content. Referencing Pepe, popular meme creator and white nationalist Twitter/X account @JaredTSwift bragged that “[p]eople have adopted our rhetoric, sometimes without even realizing it.” While academic research on the subject is limited, some preliminary investigations have found that more than 33% of teenage boys have sent or received racist/homophobic memes. It is not that people don’t think this type of content is unproblematic, but that unproblematic content becomes accepted as entertaining. With that initial impetus to engage with radical content, social media algorithms take the reigns and funnel these users into increasingly hateful circles.

The alt-right and social media algorithms have developed a symbiotic relationship in which social media companies profit from the engagement that incendiary content produces. Alt-right creators, in turn, draw wider swaths of people to their ideology. However, while the alt-right has successfully spread its messages online, they have struggled to transform online audiences into real-world political power. However, that is slowly changing. Since the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, rallies and protests from the alt-right have become more common. However, these events are inherently short-term, sporadic, and can only draw from existing ideological bases. In searching for a more sustained approach, some alt-right organizations are turning towards college campuses to serve as physical indoctrination hubs.

There are two reasons college campuses are prime conduits for alt-right propaganda. First, college campuses are often safe havens for controversial speech. While many liberal student organizations have been chastised for protesting conservative speakers in recent years, the simple fact is that most universities, if they allow student organizations to invite speakers, cannot discriminate between said organizations. Not only do most universities have an interest in promoting discourse on a variety of topics, but public universities like Berkeley are constitutionally restricted from limiting free speech. The second is that many universities often serve as national hotbeds for multiculturalism, with strong contingencies of students who support social justice efforts. On progressive campuses, students are the physical manifestation of the alt-right’s woke, politically correct targets. The first of these reasons gives a soapbox upon which conservative organizations can stand; the second provides an endless stream of content for their viewers.

Turning Point USA, a right-wing student organization that has frequently been accused of promoting racist/homophobic/conspiratorial ideas, has the stated mission of “educat[ing] students about the importance of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government.” They frequently appeal to the virtues of free speech, the flow of ideas, and the importance of public discourse. This was not my experience when I attended one of their September meetings.

The meeting was in essence a student-run lecture on the righteousness of Manifest Destiny. They argued that the virtue of Manifest Destiny was under attack by liberals who wanted to promote walkable cities and community-based essential services. They played a YouTube video about “15-minute cities,” and equated progressive desires for local-oriented city planning with restrictions on their freedom to sprawl across the country. They further equated these types of cities with the fight against climate change, and presented environmentalism and individual liberty as zero-sum games. Their rhetoric became more conspiratorial as the lecture went on. The person giving the lecture, along with many club members, seemed to indicate that this was a much larger plot, driven by the World Economic Forum and other undefined “theys” (often an antisemitic dog whistle to refer to a hidden Jewish cabal) to create a 1984-esque dystopia. These arguments reflected what other much-more openly far-right groups have said on the subject.

While rhetoric like this could serve to funnel people who were already conservative towards more extreme positions, the club, despite its stated mission, did not seem geared towards “educating” the average student on conservative principles. When a second video explored a large hypothetical city that could encase the global population and preserve the rest of the world’s nature, implications like reducing colonization drew unanimous chuckles from the audience. It quickly became clear that for a meeting like this to be effective, it required that the students attending had already bought into the worldview to some extent.

After the meeting, I was able to secure an invitation to the Berkeley chapter’s group chat. Upon gaining a closer inside look into the club’s functioning, it became immediately apparent that its primary mission was not simply to discuss political ideas or to educate others on conservative principles. Instead, the degree to which the chat was active was proportional to the chances its members had to capture content for the organization. Referencing an upcoming conservative speaker event, one user wrote

“Btw guys if anything crazy goes down (like what happened with Charlie [Kirk] at [UC] Davis […] and you get video please send it to me! We’d be happy to use it on the Fox Show I work on!”

The same user, amid the Israel/Palestine protests at UC Berkeley, told the chat to “[S]end me any good videos y’all get!!!”

The chat was then flooded with various strategies to covertly take videos of the protest, as well as those videos themselves. One of the resulting exchanges went:

User A: “From the videos, it looks like the crowd isn’t super charged or anything right”

User B: “No it’s kinda just people standing around”

User A: “Hmm lame.”

A quick look at the Turning Point USA Website starts to paint a more comprehensive picture of what these organizations are trying to achieve. Videos of college students embodying the “woke” caricature are commonplace on the home page. The club’s email newsletter often contains a “Talking Points” section to help conservatives win public arguments. As a whole, the organization does not seem to be geared toward changing the minds of those it interacts with, but is focused on publicly broadcasting the other end of the political aisle as ignorant and unreasonable.

Indeed, for the past few years, the trope of “owning college students” has been one of the most popular entryways into the Alt-Right pipeline. Videos like “Ben Shapiro Explains Basic Biology to a College Student” or “Crowder STUMPS Woke Student On Value of Free Speech” consistently garner millions of views on YouTube. While far-reaching videos like these are rarely overtly racist, they often carry discriminatory undertones. The algorithms that platform these videos do the rest of the work, recommending increasingly radical content following that first click.

Social media algorithms and alt-right content creators have worked hand-in-hand for years to funnel users into echo chambers of radicalizing content. Social media companies gain the engagement that polarizing content tends to attract, and members of the alt-right gain far greater audiences. However, in recent years there has been an increase in activity by far-right organizations on college campuses that seemingly falls outside this internet-oriented strategy. By exposing on-campus conservatives to more radical content, and by farming content on the colleges they inhabit, these organizations are quickly helping to grow the pipeline that has already trapped so many.

Featured Image Source: Turning Point USA

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